Gene Kelly had an umbrella while dancing to “Singin’ in the Rain” but he didn’t use it much, preferring instead to get wet. Photographic umbrellas won’t keep you dry but are the simplest to use and most inexpensive form of lighting modifier available, and that makes them the most popular as well. These umbrellas look and act like the kind of umbrella that keeps “raindrops from falling on your head” except that in a studio lighting situation they are usually reflective and light is bounced into them, creating a big, soft light source that’s directed toward the subject. Sometimes an umbrella is covered with translucent material and instead of mounting the umbrella so light is bounced into it, a light is fired through it, turning it into a direct source. While some light is lost shooting through an umbrella, it produces more direct light, and since more light is being directed at the subject it gives you the ability to shoot at a smaller aperture than when bounced into the umbrella. If you compare the apertures produced in the illustrations you’ll see what I mean.
Pentax has a long history of innovation as well as a rabid fan base that loves the company’s tradition of optical excellence and originality. In fact, this fan base is the reason I’m writing this review. If you’re not already a Pentaxian you probably didn’t know that Pentax (derived from PENTAprism refleX) built the first camera to incorporate a penta-prism viewfinder and reflex mirror system in 1957 and went on to introduce the first TTL metering system in 1964. While late to the digital SLR game, when they finally arrived it was with a series of entry-level cameras that delivered impressive image quality at affordable prices. Over time they’ve dipped their toes into the semipro market and the K-5 is the latest model with professional aspirations yet it retains all the quirky uniqueness that all Pentax cameras have and that endears them to so many photographers.
The generation of Canon EOS digital SLRs beginning with the 10D have been evolutionary, with each camera adding resolution and new features. The 60D continues in that vein but also takes a slightly different tack, adding some features from Canon’s own PowerShot series, bringing in functionality like a 3” flip-out LCD screen, and adding some creative effects that show how software is becoming an increasingly important part of any hardware offering. Each of these creative filters, including Soft Focus, Grainy Black and White, Toy Camera, and Miniature Effect, can be applied to a captured image creating a second “filtered” version, leaving the original file unaffected.
Steichen was always one of my photo heroes. A true Renaissance man, along with Alfred Stieglitz he opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in 1905, won an Academy Award for his World War II film The Fighting Lady, and became director of the Department of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art where he curated the legendary “Family of Man” exhibit that traveled to 69 countries and was seen by 9 million people. A companion book sold 2.5 million copies. Yet, many photographers today don’t even know his name. One of this column’s goals is to bring future “Steichens” to the attention of Shutterbug’s readers and I’m especially proud of the group of photographers that I’ve assembled for this month.
If Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate were graduating from photo school this year, the advice he would be getting instead of “plastics” would be “speedlights,” and why not? When compared to a monolight, the biggest advantage of using a shoe-mount flash is that they’re small and portable, which means you can take them anywhere. Today’s shoe-mount flashes—or speedlights as camera manufacturers like to call them—are sophisticated, seamlessly blending natural light and flash as well as having the ability to group several flashes together, trip them wirelessly, all the while calculating the correct exposure.
Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 is a major upgrade to an already great product and introduces many new features that offer you even more control over an image’s detail, contrast, and tonality, making it easy to transform color files into stunning black-and-white photographs. Silver Efex Pro 2 now includes controls for Dynamic Brightness, Amplify Blacks, Amplify Whites, Soft Contrast, Fine Structure, Image Borders, Selective Colorization, as well as a History Browser and many speed and quality improvements. All of Silver Efex Pro 2’s new features also play nice with Nik’s U Point technology, giving you selective control over an image instead of globally applying an effect, although that option is available, too.
Dick Stolley, who many consider Time-Life’s best managing editor, once told People magazine photographers that a successful image elicited a “Gasp Factor” from the viewer. Stolley believed that if the image stopped the reader, forced them to take a second look, read the headline, and perhaps the rest of the story, the photograph passed his test. Often the best photographs—those “Gasp Factor” ones—are made under less than ideal lighting conditions. These images are made on stormy days, at the crack of dawn, sunset, or in the dark of night when getting the proper exposure can be a distinct challenge. It is those precious fleeting minutes when the quality of light provides photographers with images that separate photographs from snapshots.
You don’t always need a lens to make photographs. When I was a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, our instructor Jack Wilgus had all his students make their own pinhole cameras and shoot images with them. I took the easy way out and used a Quaker Oats box and used photographic paper cut into a circle to fit the box as my capture media. My homemade camera produced round, negative images that I kidded myself into believing echoed the style of early photographs but now, as with many things photographic and not, I know better. Yet one thing remains: you don’t need a lens to make photographs. Sure, many new SLRs, such as the Olympus E-30 that I tested (April, 2009, issue of Shutterbug), have a “pinhole” filter but the camera itself uses a lens and internal software to create the look of the real thing. But shooting film in a real pinhole camera brings back that very “ah-ha” that Ernst Haas was talking about.
Edward de Bono is a physician, author, and inventor who originally came up with the concept of “lateral thinking.” He wrote Six Thinking Hats and is a proponent of the teaching of thinking as a subject in schools. I’ve often said that the most useful photographic accessory is the one that’s between a shooter’s ears, and while lenses are important to accomplishing your goals as an image-maker, it’s your brain that will ultimately help realize that vision. This month’s featured websites are a perfect example of that kind of thinking, including a blog by a Shutterbug reader who has taken the concept of a photo a day (http://farace.smugmug.com) into an entirely new direction.
Canon offers five different 70-300mm zoom lenses in its product lineup. Why so many? They obviously think this is a popular and practical focal length range and I happen to agree. I even own one of them myself—the EF 70-300mm
f/4-5.6 IS USM—but the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM tested is the mac daddy of ’em all. Part of the reason for its high price tag ($1599) is that it’s the only one of the five lenses that is resplendent in white paint (the better for TV cameras to see), making it part of the “L” series. (See “Just For The ‘L’ Of It.”) Canon’s L lenses typically have wide apertures fixed throughout the zoom range but in this case all five lenses in this focal length range have identical f/4-5.6 apertures. The new Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM telephoto zoom lens features two Ultra Low Dispersion (UD) elements for improved image quality and reduced chromatic aberration. It incorporates a floating focusing mechanism for sharpness from close-up (3.9 feet) to infinity plus an Image Stabilization (IS) system that Canon claims increases usability by approximately four stops. The IS system includes a function that allows it to continue to operate even when the camera or the lens, the latter being a better idea, is mounted on a tripod. There’s an optional ($189.95) Canon Tripod Mount C for mounting on a tripod or monopod but I was unable to get one for testing. The lens is dust- and water-resistant and features a Fluorine coating that resists smears and fingerprints and significantly eases lens cleaning, but that doesn’t make me suggest less vigorous lens protection. More later.